By Brian Sherman for The Island Eye News
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control is “concerned” about how and how many trees would be removed from Sullivan’s Island’s Maritime Forest under a plan created for the town by consultant Thomas & Hutton. In a Dec. 20, 2021 letter, DHEC Beachfront Permitting Project Manager Matthew Slagel wrote that the plan would require a major critical area permit. The plan was developed after a divided Sullivan’s Island Town Council reached an agreement with homeowners who live near the Maritime Forest, apparently settling a lawsuit originally filed in July 2010 and permitting the removal of trees and other vegetation from the Forest. Under the plan, based on a 2014 survey of trees 6 inches in diameter and larger, in one section of the forest, 167 of 174 trees would be removed. In another section, only 16 of 79 trees would remain in place. “DHEC found that in certain areas, 96% of all trees would be removed.
Studies by three federal agencies, including NOAA and FEMA, show that the density and height of vegetation and trees are our most important protection from the No. 1 threat on the island: hurricane storm surge,” said Karen Byko, president of Sullivan’s Island for All, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to preserve the Sullivan’s Island Maritime Forest and accreted land in its natural state for the benefit, protection and enjoyment of all. In the Dec. 20 letter, Slagel also raised concerns about how trees and vegetation would be removed. “You have proposed to use a skid steer mower mounted to a small rubber-tired tractor or similar machinery within this area to cut at ground level and mulch in place trees and shrubs 3 inches and smaller. It is our opinion that utilizing machinery in the beach/ dune system will disturb and alter existing soils and topography, even if the trees and shrubs themselves are cut at ground level,” the letter said. Slagel also pointed out that the DHEC Bureau of Water Coastal Stormwater Permitting is working with Thomas & Hutton to obtain information about how changes in vegetation cover might affect stormwater runoff. According to a Sullivan’s Island for All press release, the DHEC letter “shows that this plan is environmentally unsound and goes far beyond vegetation thinning and trimming.” “As DHEC’s stormwater division noted, removing these thousands of trees and shrubs puts the island at much greater risk of flooding,” Byko said. “These trees work as nature’s stormwater pumps. Taking them away for better views puts every homeowner on the island at greater risk.” DHEC’s concerns are not the only thing holding up the implementation of plans to remove trees and other vegetation from the Forest. Of the four Council members who voted to approve the settlement agreement with nearby homeowners, only two remain in office: Greg Hammond and Kaye Smith. Tim Reese was defeated in the May 4 municipal election, and Chauncey Clark lost his bid to unseat Mayor Pat O’Neil.
The new Council, which apparently is considering its options in its effort to change the terms of the agreement, voted in September 2021 to ask the former Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth District William W. “Billy’ Wilkins to assess the agreement. Wilkins determined that the agreement is invalid “because its provisions improperly restrict the legislative/governmental powers of successor Town Councils, improperly divest the town of legislative/governmental powers and improperly restrict the proprietary functions of the town.”